Saturday, April 29, 2023

Women and Men, Writers and Prizes, Progress

Earlier today I sent this Letter to the Editor to the Globe and Mail:
Re. We need writing prizes for women authors (April 29): You’d never guess from Susan Swan’s piece that, these days, women win more literary prizes than men. She mentions 7 prizes, and provides numbers going back decades—and she’s absolutely right that for far too long there were far too few women winners. But the past 5 years? Women have won 5 of 5 Governor General’s fiction awards, 3 Giller, 3 Writers’ Trust, and 3 PEN/Faulkner fiction prizes, as well as 3 Nobel Prizes for Literature. Of the 7 awards she mentions, only the Leacock and Pulitzer have skewed male. The total since 2018 for the prizes cited for their “discouraging” statistics is 20 women winners, 15 men. We all owe Swan a debt for being part of a monumental effort to bring about a much-needed change. But that effort is achieving more success than she seems prepared to acknowledge.
There are one or two things touched on in that letter—and in Susan Swan’s opinion piece—that I’d like to say a bit more about.

When I write that Swan is “absolutely right that for far too long there were far too few women winners” of literary prizes, I know whereof I speak. To some in my family (certainly to me), a continuing source of family shame is my father’s winning of the 1964 Governor General’s Award for English language fiction. At his best, Dad was to my mind an extremely good poet; I think “Haystack” and “Below Monte Casino” as good as any poems written about the horrors that ordinary troops experienced during the Second World War. But his one work of prose fiction, The Deserter, is an interesting novel rather than a great one; that it won the Governor General’s Award in 1964 over Margaret Laurence’s wonderfully well written and deeply moving The Stone Angel—felt by many to be the finest Canadian novel ever written—was a travesty, and a travesty hard to explain without acknowledging that Douglas LePan was, in 1964, very well connected and very male,* and that Margaret Laurence was neither of those things.

Thank God for progress! If, off the top of my head, I try to think of extraordinarily good works of new fiction I’ve read in the past few years, the names of women authors come to mind slightly more frequently than do those of males. I think immediately of seven authors: of Claire Keegan and Emma Donoghue and Sally Rooney and Elizabeth Strout, and also of Andre Alexis and Michael Crummey and Kazuo Ishiguro. That’s seven authors who come immediately to mind, four of them women.** Interestingly, the ratio of prizes touched on in that letter to the Globe (20 women, 15 men) is precisely the same, 4 to 3. I suppose my intuition, then, is that the ratio of prize winners these days is—so far as gender is concerned—very much as it should be!

* * *

In her highly engaging (if unfortunately titled) new book Left is Not Woke Susan Nieman, who is herself very much a thinker of the left, takes issue with three aspects of what she sees as “woke” leftist thought today. Perhaps the most interesting of the three is her discussion of the great irony that many today who style themselves “progressive” have a deep suspicion of any argument suggesting that progress may be occurring—sometimes even of any argument suggesting that progress is possible. Many on the left, Nieman suggests, suffer from a suspicion of the notion of progress so profound that they recoil from acknowledging progress when it does occur—including when it occurs in large part as a result of “progressive” efforts that they themselves have been associated with. I cannot think of anything I’ve read recently that is a better example of this tendency that Susan Swan’s piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail. To the extent that it acknowledges that any progress at all has been made, it does so grudgingly; the emphasis is entirely on the degree to which males have dominated over the past 119 years, with barely a nod to the extraordinary degree to which women have nevertheless triumphed in the face of all odds.

The Governor General’s Award for English language fiction was awarded in only eight years in the 1960s--in two years the jury decided against presenting any award--but there were nine winners (in 1968 there were two winners, Alice Munro and Mordecai Richler). Of the nine winners, seven were men; Laurence won in 1966 for A Jest of God, an award that many thought was informed by the failure of the 1964 jury to recognize Laurence’s achievement with A Stone Angel. Even those who argue (and I am very much among them) that women are still discriminated against in many walks of life, and that more remains to be done in order to achieve full gender equality, should surely acknowledge that there has been progress. And if there has been progress over the past half century, that should surely give us confidence that more progress is possible in the years to come.
*He was also, even by most who knew him in those days, thought to be mainstream in terms of his sexual orientation; Dad did not come out as gay until the 1980s.
**One thing to note: this list is focused only on English-language fiction writing of recent years. If other genres are to be considered, I might add three other writers--Lynn Nottage (whose excellent play Sweat I read not too long ago), Margaret Atwood (for her very fine poetry volume The Door), and Ta Nahesi Coates (for his superb long essay "The Case for Reparations")--the addition of which would make the overall ratio 3-2 rather than 4-3.

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